Union Charges Walker With Using Unfair Labor Tactics

Posted June 22, 2007 at 6:36pm

The union seeking to represent employees at the Government Accountability Office filed an unfair labor practice charge against Comptroller General David Walker last week, arguing that the agency chief has violated labor laws by not remaining neutral during the campaign.

The first step in filing such a complaint is to issue a letter to the accused, which the union did on June 21. Walker has 30 days from then to respond. If he and officials with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers cannot come to an informal resolution within that time, the matter will be forwarded to the GAO Personnel Appeals Board’s Office of General Counsel for further action.

“We request that you review the allegations, and to prevent any future violations we urge you to cease any activity related to those described herein,” IFPTE President Gregory Junemann wrote. “Further, we trust that you will instruct all other Agency officials that such improper conduct will not be permitted.”

GAO officials declined to comment on specifics of the complaint Friday, but they did release a statement: “We are in receipt of the IFPTE’s letter of June 21, 2007. We are reviewing the letter and look forward to discussing this matter with them in due course.”

A majority of the GAO’s 1,500 analysts filed petitions in May to hold a union authorizing election, which was expected to take place this summer. But it has been delayed as the agency and IFPTE officials dispute whether approximately 360 employees involved in the effort are eligible to organize.

The GAO argues that because those workers serve in supervisory roles, they cannot join the union. IFPTE officials have said the analysts’ supervisory tasks are minimal and they are eligible to organize.

“In the modern work environment, people work in teams, and somebody is a member of a team, and somebody is a leader of a team,” said Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the IFPTE. “That doesn’t necessarily make them a supervisor.”

Union officials also criticized the GAO for hiring the outside firm Venable to assist with the unionization process, a move they argue is costly, unnecessary and part of an effort to quash the organizing campaign. The agency has maintained it did not have counsel on staff who specialize in similar union matters.

In its June 21 complaint, the union cites four separate incidents in which, it argues, the comptroller general violated a requirement that GAO management “maintain strict neutrality during a union organizing campaign.”

Shearon said Friday that the union decided to file the complaint after months of dispute with Walker over comments and actions he has made.

“We believe in being fair about stuff, and certainly nobody’s perfect,” Shearon said. “But when you see somebody repeating a behavior, at some point, you have to say, ‘My gosh.’”

Shearon added: “We knew that he has a bit of a reputation of being somewhat of a maverick, but this goes beyond what we’ve anticipated from him.”

The first charge refers to a Jan. 23 article published on govexec.com in which Walker said the union effort came from a “handful of employees” and he would present the pros and cons of unionization to his staff.

The June 21 complaint isn’t the first time those comments have been an issue.

IFPTE attorneys sent Walker a letter in January referring to the article, accusing him of interfering in unionization efforts by making those comments. Walker fired back in a February letter, which stated his comments were appropriate and in line with labor law.

Other incidents cited by the IFPTE complaint include a May 9 quarterly Health Care Team meeting in which Walker said a union could slow the decision-making process at the agency and said employees who think the workplace is not fair “do not understand the situation”; a June 6 staff meeting, where Walker said only a vocal minority is seeking a union and labor law prevents him from helping employees unilaterally; and a June 19 memo to staff titled “Union Update,” which outlines the unionization process thus far.

While the agency is legally allowed to provide some information about the unionization election process to staff, the June 19 memo, posted to the GAO’s intranet, goes beyond that and is riddled with factual errors, the IFPTE argues.

“The agency is not permitted to provide periodic self-serving, spinning of facts related to the ongoing procedures of the union organization process, and then send these to a captive audience via intranet,” the complaint reads.

The unfair-labor-practices charge wasn’t the only heat Walker felt last week.

While debating the legislative branch appropriations bill on the House floor Friday, several Members criticized Walker for his response to the unionization effort.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who chairs the Oversight and Governmental Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, postal service and the District of Columbia, said the GAO work force has been “severely disrupted” and called Walker’s decision to hire outside counsel “unfortunate.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, echoed those comments.

“This action is unnecessary, costly and will likely delay” union proceedings, she said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called the unionization effort “a revolution” by GAO employees and urged the House to investigate the use of outside counsel in the case.

“If we allow taxpayer funds to be used that way, then it seems to me we need to be called to account,” Norton said.

Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) came to Walker’s aid, saying the comptroller general has promised to allow the workers to unionize if they choose.

Wamp also argued that it is not uncommon for government agencies to hire outside counsel to assist on a variety of matters.

“Even the House has,” Wamp said.